The Treasure of Como Bluff on First Sight Saturday
Today I welcome Alison Henderson who shares a first meeting scene from her western historical romance The Treasure of Como Bluff.
Kaboom! The ground shook, and Caroline Hubbard stumbled to regain her balance. Ears ringing from the blast, she glanced across the rocky, barren landscape and spotted a plume of gray dust rising against the blazing azure sky. Horseapples! If those scalawags on the next ridge persisted in making a mockery of science with their dynamite, she’d have to work faster.
She skittered down the makeshift path that crisscrossed the face of the bluff, knocking loose a shower of pebbles in her wake. As she neared the valley floor, she noticed a dark form slouched in a patch of scruffy weeds several yards away. Had one of those bone thieves come to spy on her?
She marched toward the figure, hands balled into fists. “You’d better get away from here,” she shouted. “This is my claim, and you know it.”
The form didn’t respond or move. As she approached, she made out a jumble of arms and legs. Bile rose in her throat. It was a man all right, and he appeared to be dead.
“Hey, mister,” she called. Still no movement, so she ventured closer. A shock of smooth, dark hair fell across his face obscuring his features, but he wore good quality clothes, too good for a railway worker. What was a well-dressed man doing out here without a horse? The dirt around him was disturbed by dozens of hoof prints. A bloody rock and the mutilated body of a rattlesnake nearby told the tale.
She knelt and brushed the man’s hair aside. It slid through her fingers like heavy silk, revealing a deeply tanned face with rugged features and a square jaw with a cleft chin. There was no sign of death’s pallor. Caroline rested her hand against his chest to check for signs of respiration but felt no movement. Her stomach rolled uneasily. She was used to dealing with the remains of creatures that had been dead for millennia. She’d never faced a fresh body before.
She wished she’d seen him in life, bursting with vitality. His body was strong and well made, and he had such beautiful hair, coffee brown with faint red highlights, as if he’d spent a great deal of time in the sun. Unable to resist one last touch, she brushed it back again, revealing an egg-sized lump on his forehead with a jagged cut oozing blood. That must have been the result of the blow that killed him.
Wait a minute. Dead bodies don’t bleed.
Caroline pressed her fingers to the side of his neck and felt a pulse, faint and thready but definitely there. Her heart skipped a beat. The man was alive. He must have been knocked unconscious by the blow to his head. At least she could postpone worrying about what to do with his body and concentrate on keeping him alive.
She jumped up, ran to her mule, and untied his tether. The travois she used for transporting fossil specimens lay on the ground. She attached the poles to the strips of leather hanging from her saddle and gave a tug on the mule’s reins.
A summer of hard physical labor had built her strength, but moving the injured stranger wasn’t easy. She maneuvered him onto a blanket with great care and dragged it to the travois, where she secured him with leather straps as if he were a Diplodocus femur.
An hour later they reached the tiny, ramshackle cabin she’d rented from the railroad, and twenty minutes after that, the man lay stretched on the rough plank floor of the main room, his head resting on a half-empty sack of flour. She supposed she should attempt to ascertain the extent of his injuries. The bump on his head was obvious, but he might have other injuries hidden beneath his fancy clothes.
First came the question of how to remove the knee-length black coat that fit his frame like a custom made glove. Fearful of aggravating his injuries, she retrieved a pair of shears and cut the garment from his arms and shoulders. Underneath, his shirt was wrinkled and none too white, but she was pleased to see it free of blood stains. However, there remained the issue of bone, muscle, or internal injuries, and the only way to determine those was a thorough physical examination.
Caroline hesitated as she considered the form sprawled on her floor. Although she had no medical training, she was well versed in anatomy, particularly skeletal anatomy. If only he were an ancient sauropod…
But he wasn’t. He was a man, and if she intended to examine him, she needed to remove more of his clothes. As she unbuttoned his shirt, she struggled to ignore the hard warmth of his chest beneath her fingers. Nothing more than a healthy set of pectoral muscles. But they were more than healthy; they were magnificent. Firm, broad, and sculpted. Much like the marble torsos of Greek and Roman athletes she’d studied in art class in college.
She slid her hands up and down his arms checking for displacement of the bones or joints. Happily, they felt solid and straight without fracture or dislocation. Even relaxed, his muscles were long and hard and spoke of work that belied his expensive clothing. The thickened skin on his hands bore additional witness to a life of labor.
She finished her inspection, and satisfied he had suffered no major injuries to the upper body, Caroline scooted to his feet and considered the prospect of removing his boots. Fifteen minutes of wiggling and yanking later, she had stripped him to his long johns and heavy wool socks. Damp hair clung to her forehead, and she blew it away with a puff. Undressing a man was hot, sweaty work.
Once she was satisfied he had no major broken bones and his knees and ankles articulated properly, she turned her attention to his forehead where blood still oozed from the gash in the center of the purplish lump. It was ugly, but growing up with a brother, she’d seen worse. Once she washed it, she would be able to tell whether it needed stitches or if a bandage would suffice.
After filling the pitcher from the water barrel and pouring some into the bowl, she blotted the wound with a soft, damp cloth. Once the blood and dirt were gone, a jagged cut remained, and she had her answer. It definitely needed stitches.
She’d never stitched human flesh before, but she’d watched their housekeeper sew up Arthur’s knee once. He’d screamed like a scalded cat. Thank goodness this man was out cold; she lacked Mrs. O’Rourke’s strength of arm and will. She fetched her sewing kit, threaded a needle with strong, black thread, took a deep breath, and swallowed hard.
You can do this. It’s just like hemming a tea towel.
Caroline winced when the needle pierced his skin, but he remained quiet and still. Only three stitches to go. When she stabbed him a second time, his eyes remained closed, but a soft moan escaped his lips. Only two stitches left. She bit her lip and stuck the needle in. His body twitched, and he groaned again.
She yanked the thread taut. Hurry. Just one more stitch.
She plunged the needle through his flesh and tightened the thread in one swift pull. She was just about to tie it off when his head moved, jerking the needle from her fingers. His eyes opened, and she found herself staring into a pair of deeply confused, midnight blue eyes.
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